Moving van fire snarls traffic, damages highway,
consumes contents of three households
Idaho County Free Press (Grangeville)
WHITE BIRD -- A Sunday afternoon trailer fire put the brakes on U.S. Highway 95 traffic for several hours and resulted in damages estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Overheated brakes resulted in the fire that consumed an Allied Van Lines trailer operated by Matthew Moving of Maryland, according to Fire Chief Bob Johnson, White Bird Volunteer Fire Department. The driver, Antone Eugene Helm, age and residency unavailable, was barely able to detach the power unit and pull away from the trailer packed to capacity -- left parked in the southbound lane -- before it became engulfed in flames.
Apart from a portion of strapped-on belongings removed from the trailer's rear, the household contents of three families being moved from Maryland, including furniture and a new motorcycle, were destroyed. Johnson estimated total damages around $100,000 for the trailer and its contents.
Partial highway traffic resumed after three hours, and both lanes were open at about 9 p.m.
A combined 16 firefighters, three engines and two water tenders from the White Bird and Salmon River Rural fire departments responded to the 3:39 p.m. 911 call at milepost 219 made by nearby resident Kelly Chamberlain.
Preceding this, Helm had been southbound, according to Johnson. Coming down the grade Helm said he had been looking back to check whether he had been overheating his brakes but hadn't seen anything.
"At Skookumchuck [picnic area, four miles south of White Bird], a motorcyclist came up alongside and said his truck was on fire," Johnson said.
Multiple reports were of fire coming out of the front section around the trailer wheels, and the tires themselves were on fire, which he noted is a sure sign of brakes on fire.
"The flames shot up the sides of the trailer within seconds of him disconnecting the truck," Johnson said. "It just took off on him."
Highway traffic stalled as the now engulfed trailer occupied the southbound lane and arriving fire emergency vehicles filed along the northbound lane. With the trailer fully involved, firefighters' first priority was to tackle the adjacent blazes moving up the northbound lane hillside and down the southbound shoulder toward adjacent structures.
"We wanted to go after these first to keep this from turning into a major wildland fire," Johnson said. The trailer and contents were past saving at this point -- "the center section was all melted out," he said -- and so crews focused on containing the trailer fire from spreading further.
Wind drove gray, acrid smoke toward stalled motorists in the northbound lane as crews applied water to the trailer now mostly gone. Side support struts protruded from blackened contents that firefighters pulled apart and out to reach hotspots with water and foam. Johnson observed the fire's intense heat had burned the highway asphalt right down to the base rock.
According to Mel Coulter, communications specialist for the Idaho Transportation Department, crews removed seven yards of damaged asphalt and replaced it with temporary plant mix. Permanent repairs are expected to be done later this summer. Road damage estimates were unavailable.
At one point, firefighting efforts were curtailed for about 30 minutes as crews backed away for safety due to ammunition within the trailer popping off, ignited by the heat.
"There's something about bullets flying around that you don't want to get close to this," he said, "especially when you can't tell what direction they are going."
As firefighting efforts moved into hours, traffic stacked up approximately a mile in both directions. Some motorists turned back, but most remained. Some read, a few sunbathed on their vehicles. Some were going home or trucking goods or fuel, a group of ladies joked whether their husbands would be wondering what happened to them, and one surprisingly calm man was headed to Boise to catch a flight. Many of those talked to expressed frustration at the lack of information on the extent of the delay and why at least one lane could not be opened.
By about 6 p.m., J.R. and Pam Barnett of New Meadows had been waiting for an hour and a half.
"I don't mind sitting here while they work to remove it if one lane could be opened to move people through," J.R. said.
"We realize the incident created major complications for motorists, but are thankful there was no loss of life and that we were able to restore traffic as quickly as we did," Coulter said. "We appreciate the cooperation we received from a number of responding agencies."
Additional scene assistance was provided by White Bird QRU, and traffic control from Corporal Jim Brouwer, Idaho State Police, and Sgt. Zach Nichols, Idaho County Sheriff's Office.
Partial traffic resumed when an ITD front loader pushed the burnt trailer remains off the road. Fire crews were again on scene early Monday morning as Dales Rescue Towing of Grangeville recovered the debris for removal and subsequent inspection by insurance adjusters.
No injuries were reported, but unfortunately, "three families lost their belongings," Johnson said.
"It's like losing your house," said Sgt. Nichols.